If you have been to a local Big Y over the last couple of years, there's a good chance you've seen the Billy C's honey display in the produce section of the store. In my teaching days at Westfield High School, my former student Billy Crawford is the founder and owner of Billy C's honey, also known as New England Apiaries, LLC. As a matter of fact, I believe I received a bottle of honey for an end-of-year gift from this student-turned-entrepreneur! It's delicious, and I suggest you go and buy some today!
As we were looking to share how businesses affect the environment, it seemed like the perfect time to educate on the benefits of local honey and how Bill and his team make a positive impact on a local and national level.
Tell us about yourself.
I was raised in Westfield by my parents, Bill and Chris Crawford. From a young age, I enjoyed several hobbies, such as coin collecting, insect collecting, and bagpiping. I graduated from Westfield High School in 2008, and from there attended Holyoke Community College and Westfield State University with a degree in Biology. I married Elaine Martin of Wallenstein, Ontario, in Westfield in 2015, and together, we have three children, William IV(4), Yolana (2), and Donald (infant). As a migratory commercial beekeeping family, we snowbird. During the warmer part of the year, we call the oldest standing house (c.1740) in Southwick, MA, home. And, during the fall through early spring, we live on our farm in Bristol, Georgia.
Why did you first develop an interest in bee-keeping?
From a young age, I was fascinated with insects. During one summer, I took a “College for Kids” class at Westfield State University, called “Six Legs, Eight Legs, and More.” While creatures with eight legs or more still creep me out, I think it was this class that permanently cemented my fascination with six-legged critters. I could often be found in Stanley or Paper Mill Park with my insect net, catching butterflies, or chasing beetles and mantises in the bushes and grass. However, my favorite of all the entomological activities revolved around raising Saturniidae, or giant silk moths, which I sometimes still do today.
My father, Bill, was a Lieutenant on the West Springfield Fire Dept, and every September, he'd have numerous walking details at The Big E. One day in 2004, my dad brought home a “Bee School” flyer that he picked up from the Hampden County Beekeeper's Association's booth inside The Massachusetts Building. At first, I felt a bit apprehensive about the idea of playing with stinging insects (something I think everyone innately fears), but it soon grew on me. For Christmas that year, my parents purchased me a seat in the beekeeping class, a beehive kit with all the necessary equipment, and the bees themselves. In mid-April 2005, the 4lb package of bees arrived from Georgia. With the help of my father, we set up the hive in one of the fields of Pignatare's farm, where I worked, and we shook those bees into their new home. Little did I know at the time what a significant impact this would have on the rest of my life.
When did you decide to turn this passion into a business?
As my hobby grew, I produced more and more honey and started calling my new venture, Billy C's Raw Honey. I started selling it out of my backpack at WHS my sophomore year and I picked up my first wholesale account at Pignatare's Farm. Over the next couple of years, I started selling honey to more farm stands in the area, a few mom and pop stores, as well as HCBA's booth at the Big E's Massachusetts Building. During my college years, I earned money to get the startup funds to grow the business. By the time I was 21, I owned and managed a little over 30 of my own hives. And then, in June of 2012, a new buddy of mine texted me with an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. His father and two brothers owned a commercial beekeeping outfit in York County, Pennsylvania. A couple days later, I embarked in my little red Suzuki Aerio to the South Dakota prairie, and spent six weeks laboring at the farm. From there, I worked for my friend's father in PA, and landed a permanent job at the world-renowned, Hackenberg Apiaries, based out of Lewisburg, PA. It was while I here that I really became a commercial beekeeper, growing and running a side operation with 200 of my own hives, while learning the trade from Dave and Davey Hackenberg. Eventually in 2014, I broke off on my own, and returned to Massachusetts with a vision to reestablish myself from Pioneer Valley Apiaries to New England Apiaries.
What is the current business of New England Apiaries, LLC?
NEW ENGLAND APIARIES, LLC is a migratory commercial beekeeping operation, meaning it is a bee farm that seasonally moves its bees across the country for the purpose of crop pollination and commercial honey production. While New England Apiaries, and it's roughly 1500 colonies, is geared more towards crop pollination services, a significant amount of time is put into producing Local Raw Honey in MA, CT, and NY during May and June. This honey is packaged under the name Billy C's Raw Honey. While the bees themselves are moved throughout the country for pollination, the bees actually rarely produce surplus extractable honey during the pollination circuit. And to produce enough local honey to last the whole year, roughly 1000 colonies are parked in roughly 35 locations in the Connecticut River Valley during the short window of May and June to produce the bee's sweet reward.
In addition to honey production and pollination services, New England Apiaries sells both packaged bees and small starter colonies, to hobby and sideline beekeepers so they may start or replace their own colonies.
How important are honey bees to agriculture?
Very! In fact, I like to refer to bees as the unsung heroes of agriculture, and not just for their ability to produce honey. Modern crop farming practice calls for a farmer to plant many acres of one crop in a given area. While this system of food production is great from an economical point of view, it is not the greatest from the standpoint of a self-sustaining ecosystem. As a result, there are many more flowers that need to be pollinated than what the natural pollinators in a given area have the ability to handle. To alleviate this situation, farmers rent bees to be placed in or next to their fields, which should result in an evenly pollinated field with higher than natural yields. It is said that 2/3 of the food we eat is directly dependent on bees. And it's not just the fruits and vegetables of which we think that are included in this statistic, but also the seeds required to produce non-pollinated foods. For example, we eat the root of an onion, which itself does not need a bee to grow. However, bees are needed to make the onion seeds to plant the field. Also, while cows, and the milk they produce, do not require a bee to make food, bees are indeed needed in the production of seeds for alfalfa, which is grown to feed the cow.
What is the difference between local honey and locally packed honey, and why is it important for consumers to know the difference?
This is a very important question, and one that should make people want to seek out locally-produced honey. Generally speaking, locally-produced honey is produced in the rough geographical area where it is marketed and sold. Locally-packed honey however, is honey that could be sourced from anywhere, but jarred locally. It's important to be able to discern between the two kinds of “local” products, as the locally-produced honey may have more significant benefits to health, such as a remedy to allergies. New England Apiaries' honey brand, Billy C's Raw Honey, is 100% locally-produced.
What are the future goals of New England Apiaries?
The first is increasing the availability of truly locally-produced, raw honey by expanding our honey brand to more retailers in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Another goal is to grow our bulk honey business selling 60lb pails of local honey. I hope to do this by promoting its benefits to area food establishments, and by reaching out to more area honey packers and pitching the benefits of locally produced honey versus cheaper honey. And our third current major goal is for the bees to gainfully employ four people full-time.
How is New England Apiaries making an impact across New England and the United States?
Whether it’s a single jar of local honey being sold at a local store, the crisp taste of a freshly picked apple grown at the orchard down the road, or helping to pollinate my largest pickling cucumber grower's 250,000 bushel crop, I know that what began as a humble hobby in 2005 has actually contributed to the health and nourishment of my community and nation. www.newenglandapiaries.com, 413-454-8403